You Damn Dirty Motorcyclist!
Part Two: Grime Divining and Other Brush Techniques
by Stephen Pate
Marketing people at several motorcycle companies are now using the image of high reliability as part of their core Brand Identity. This tactic used by the manufacturers has actually worked to the disadvantage of many riders. As I detailed in ‘Part One’ of this article, many rider’s attitudes have changed over recent years regarding the care of their bikes. Some of them don’t clean their bikes as a ‘statement’ about who or what they are as a motorcyclist. Others simply believe that modern motorcycles are like modern cars and require little maintenance or cleaning. This is not the case with any vehicle, regardless of the number of wheels it has. Modern bikes do require less maintenance than bikes made 20 or 30 years ago, but they still need a lot of routine maintenance.
The increased reliability of modern motorcycles also means that there are many people out there who haven’t a clue how to work on their bikes or what really needs to be done to enhance their reliability and safety. Many of those people are not really deserving of criticism though. Many newer bikes can be complicated enough that only a dealer or a professional mechanic should be doing any major service to the bike. This does not mean that folks can’t do the simple, routine things to keep their eyes on the finer details of their motorcycles. It’s an important part of being an active motorcyclist, as opposed to just being a hobbyist or treating motorcycles as some sort of lifestyle fashion accessory. If you’ve made motorcycles a major part of your life, caring for them can consume a major part of your life. No one really likes to do the work when they need to… but doing it when you want to by making it part of your routine maintenance can actually be a pleasurable activity. A little garage time never hurt anyone. Except that time a bike fell on me while I was cleaning it… but that’s another story all together.
Routine cleaning and maintenance is a subject that has been covered extensively. Also, it could be separated into multiple categories and subcategories for modern or vintage machines, road going or off road bikes, cruisers or sportbikes, etc. For the purposes of this article I will only concentrate on some basic essentials of cleaning and safety checking, as well as providing some tips, tricks and resources for maintaining any road going motorcycle.
To Wash or Not To Wash?
First off, there’s the question of why we should even bother to clean the damn things in the first place? They’re just gonna get dirty when you ride them, right? That’s all well and true, but sometimes I just think it’s good to have a clean bike. Although, outside the logic of safety concerns, I just couldn’t seem to put my finger on why that is! I know I like riding a clean bike more… I enjoy the experience more… they even seem to run better… or maybe I am just nuts? I decided to ask some people for their opinions as well as some tips or tricks for cleaning and maintaining their machines. My friend Mark Mattei who is a serious collector of all sorts of vehicles, seldom cleans anything. He replied very quickly and simply with the tip that, “Theoretically, urine is sterile”. Clearly, he was not ‘down’ with this subject matter. Others were a bit more eloquent on the subject.
“I am always surprised at how much better my bike seems to run when it is clean. I believe it is a healthy thing. Especially when we are talking about a motorcycle. I need to trust my bike. I need to believe it is somewhat safer because of my care for it. Cleaning the bike helps me to remember having looked at every nut and bolt. Seeing that everything is ‘right’. It is a good thing when we take notice of the condition of the parts that we trust our lives to”. – Tony Keisman
“I have found many unexpected hazards while cleaning my bikes. A Brown Recluse spider’s nest under my seat, a loose front axle on the sidecar (the rag spun the nut), a fractured fork leg, various oil leaks and a bunch of other things. If you’re serious about riding, you will take care of your machine. Cleaning your bike is required MAINTENANCE. It not about posing, it’s about safety. It’s about proper care. If you think using detailer on your bright work before a ride to the HOG meeting is what I mean, you are mistaken! It’s about keeping the bike fresh and ready for a ‘coast to coast’ or a simple ride to the store. If you let your bike ‘go’ on purpose, it’s only as a way for you to draw attention to yourself…by proclaiming that your an idiot. By maintaining your machine’s appearance you get familiar with the nuts and bolts and pieces. While cleaning, take time to check the fluids, air pressure and chain/belt tension of your bike’s pieces. It’s all good habits that might save your skin someday”. – Eric Todd Trosper
“I’m one of those guys who ends up getting other people’s neglected or abused ’70s Hondas. Whole, wrecked, stripped, whatever, they all have one thing in common: They’re dirty. No matter how bad, the first thing I do is wash the bike, even if the engine is seized and the wheels are rusty. This helps me to assess the condition of the bike and the completeness of it. Keeping the running bikes clean allows me to see how they wear out, leak, or loosen up as I ride them. I don’t like to be surprised on the road, and since my bikes are older and have been worked on before by unknown wrenches, I’ve usually gone through most every major part before I take the bike for a substantial ride. Knock on wood, but I’ve never had a breakdown on the road and don’t plan to. Of course, others appreciate the tools and spares I bring along”! – Vince Strazzabosco
“The reason we spend a lot of time ensuring bikes are clean is so that if there is a problem such as a leak it is easily identified and is also easy to trace back to source. A dirty bike makes the whole fault finding a bit hit and miss, as well as a messy process. You will also see potential problems before they happen such as a frayed clutch cable, leaking brake lines, etc. It has been proven that a dry chain for example can sap up to 5% of you bikes power, or more if it has stiff links that create tight spots. Badly adjusted steering head bearings are a potential disaster. Worn shocks, blown fork seals and dirty fork oil also affect the ride quality of your machine. Many bikes have never had their fork oil changed which is partly because the owner never really feels the difference in handling as they become accustomed to the way the bike slowly degrades around them.” – Darren Thomas
Clearly, there are some real reasons to keep your bike clean. Perhaps there is just a psychological aspect to it as well. It is probably safe to assume that we all bought motorcycles to enjoy them. If a clean bike is more enjoyable to you, then that’s fantastic…. an added bonus! So, let’s just go forward with the whole ‘clean is better’ theory for now. Let’s assume that everyone has been healed, converted, saved… and now accepts his or her inner clean freak as their higher power. You with me on this? Sure you are!
Now, the first and most fundamental issue is whether or not you should be cleaning it with WATER. Cleaning usually begins with water, right? As silly as it may or may not sound, water is not always the best thing to clean your bike with. If I had a dollar for every time I saw some clown in a little leather vest blasting their bike with a pressure washer, I wouldn’t have to work for a living. The problem with high-pressure washers is that they tend to wash away any lube that is supposed to stay in critical areas of the bike… like in your wheel bearings, fork seals and chain. Also, they work their way into your electrical system at various points. Also, the water pressure can actually cause damage to various components if not directed properly. If you must use some water on the bike, stand back from the bike six feet or so and spray over the bike so water falls onto it like it was rained on. Keep water spray away from your switchgear, wiring, carburetors, bearings and exhaust outlets in particular. Then, wipe it down, ride it right away and get it good and dried off. Rich Albertson of WELD Racing really put it best,
“The best way to wash your bike is just exactly what you would like… a nice warm bath at home. How would you like it if someone rode you to the car wash and bathed your naked ass in front of everyone? Trust me, it’s not that fun…. ”
Suzi Greenway sent one interesting option for dealing with water that I had never thought of.
“My best cleaning tip is how to dry the bike. After a good wash, I blow dry it with my leaf blower. This reduces water spotting and dries any residual water in engine fins or other places. I was advised years ago to ride the bike after washing to dry it, and if I come home in a rainstorm and want to quick clean the bike, this is a way to get the bike dry safely. Just be careful that the area around the bike is clean so that you do not blow dirt or stones up at the bike”.
Methods or Madness
Doing difficult jobs without the proper tools can be a miserable task. With cleaning, like any maintenance, the right tools and methods make all the difference not only in how difficult things are, also in the quality of the end result. So, I’ve put together some good basics to get you started, taking things one section at a time.
Engines: If you are going to be cleaning your engine specifically, and especially if you have black painted parts that are turning gray, I highly recommend using S100 ‘Engine Brightner’. It is pretty much without equal for use on the engine and is OK to use on paint, plastics, and rubber. It makes all the black painted and coated parts look great, as well as the black plastic and rubber bits. The results are pretty undeniably excellent. It can save a lot of time and still get better results than you would otherwise. Diluted strength Simple Green can also be good, just do not leave it on the surfaces to dry or it will absolutely damage your finish. Also, for the really tough stuff like heavily stained cast aluminum engine cases, carburetor cleaner and a brass wire bristle brush can work well enough to make them look like they were bead-blasted clean.
Chrome & Alloys: One serious time saving tip is to get a polishing pad that works on the end of a drill. Spinning at low speed with a non-grit polish will really generate the best results without burning or etching. If you have experience working with abrasives, use something like Semichrome or Fitz… but keep separate buffing elements for each type of polish so you can manage your results without damage. Regardless, just about anything is better than doing it by hand which is ridiculously time consuming and just one of the many reasons why I don’t have any chrome to polish. However, Never Dull can be extremely effective at cleaning heavily tarnished chrome and alloy. The wadding is impregnated with a chemical that is great at getting out things like the bluing on pipes. It can be mildly abrasive, so finish off with something like a Rolite aircraft aluminum polish, which is also used on big jobs like Airstream trailers.
Rubber: Tires should be one of the first things that routinely are gone over on your bike. Visually inspect the tires for cracks, debris, tread wear and always check your air pressure. Don’t use Armor All or similar tire treatments. They are a safety hazard and not good for the finish of your wheels, paint, chrome and the life of your tires. Clean your tires really well and they will certainly look good enough. For other modern rubber pieces, you can simply use WD-40 to keep things nice and supple. If they once were black and are turning gray, you can use “Black Again” to restore some of their color and luster.
Paintwork: If you want to keep a good wax on your paint without any buildup, you can use a “cleaner wax”. However, be careful with your application of these, as they do contain some abrasives. On a modern bike, this usually is not a big deal, but you want to watch using a buffing wheel with these type of products. They can cause some harm to older finishes. Using a cleaner wax as a starting point is good for preparing surfaces for a heavier carnauba wax that will create a nice glaze. Once you have a good wax application, don’t use products like 409 or other household cleaners or soaps to clean your paintwork. Use Pledge or another treatment of cleaner wax. Most household soaps, detergents and cleaning chemicals will strip off the wax application and just make your job harder by requiring you to apply wax all over again.
Leather: Lexol is especially good for when leather is wet and you need to condition it to keep it from being damaged. They make a cleaner, conditioner and Neatsfoot oil that are just about the best on the market. Also, Eagle One Carnuba Leather Cream does a great job. A good oil or conditioner can generally provide adequate wet weather protection, but Scotch Guard over the oils and conditioners works well too. Also, Saddle Soap gets most jobs done and is inexpensive and found very easily.
Once you have everything good and clean, it is a good idea to go through and check all your fasteners and wiring for general wear, tear or looseness. If you have a sportbike with full bodywork, consider stripping it naked periodically to check everything underneath in detail and also to clean the areas you can’t normally reach. After riding my bike through this past winter, I was happy that I had kept corrosion to a minimum, only to find a full cup of sand and gravel stuck to my engine and various components underneath my bodywork. It was not only a mess, but also a real wear and tear issue. It had accumulated inside my rear swingarm and had jammed my chain adjustment mechanisms badly. I also found a lot of sand inside my air box where there was a hole starting in the filter. When things are apart for maintenance, this is the time to do a few things to help you keep an eye on things going forward. Phil Hitchcock offers up another tip for making future checks easier that yields positive results.
“The best & cheapest thing to do after a bike is cleaned is to buy a two dollar bottle of red nail polish and put spots of it on all the threads you do not want to come loose. Then it is just a simple matter of checking out the spot to see if it has cracked in which case time to tighten & note that it may be a problem area in future. I use this method on all my bikes.” – Phill Hitchcock of Road & Race Engineering
The benefits of keeping a clean bike far outweigh any superficial reason not to. The excuse of, “I’d rather ride than rub”, just doesn’t hold water… or WD-40 for that matter.